October 11, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JOHN WESLEY AND MISS MARCH
The fifth in a series of five.
John Wesley was 86 years old. He hadn’t yet retired. He never did retire. He was still preaching. He preached a sermon when he was 86 that he called, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.” Here’s how he began: “What a mystery is this, that Christianity should have done so little good in the world!”
His concern was that Christianity had not delivered on its promises. He’s an old man now. He has witnessed the revival that bears his name. He hasn’t just witnessed it, he has led it. He has lived long enough to see the fruit of his life’s work. I would expect that he would be feeling some deep satisfaction. He’s lived quite a life. He’s certainly earned what we all look forward to in old age — being able to look back and feel good about your life.
But you read this sermon and you see he’s not feeling very good. He’s feeling pretty bad. He is discouraged and even embarrassed by what he sees. He sees many members in the Methodist societies, but few disciples of Jesus Christ. Many eager to praise God, but few eager to serve God. He says in this sermon that the Christians in England and Ireland are “no better than the heathens of Africa or America . . . in many respects they are absolutely worse.”
What has gone wrong? That is the question John Wesley is asking. He concludes that one of the main causes of the “Inefficacy of Christianity” comes from the attitude Christian people have toward the poor. At age 86, Wesley is still capable of working up a pretty good head of steam and making his point with plenty of passion:
Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half-naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing?
There was an earlier preacher named James who made the same point with similar passion. We read these words earlier:
Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” — if you don’t give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.
Even at the height of the Wesleyan Revival, even after so many had come to faith in Christ, John Wesley is discouraged and embarrassed by all the faith he sees that is not tied to action. It’s dead faith. It’s useless faith. It’s selfishness masquerading as faith. And it’s the reason Christianity is so inefficacious.
That’s probably not a word you use every day. Inefficacious. John Wesley used big words in his sermon titles. I dumb mine down. Like today. “John Wesley and Miss March.”
I don’t know where your mind went when you heard that title. But before I tell you about Miss March, this might be a good time to tell you about John Wesley’s problems with women. It’s a sad story. He fell in love with Sophy Hopkey when he was a young missionary in Georgia, but she got tired of waiting for him to make up his mind and married someone else.
Then there was Grace Murray. She had been his nurse when he was ill. It’s not the first time someone has fallen in love with a nurse. They were engaged to be married, but John and his brother Charles had made a pact that either one of them had final say on who the other would marry. Charles didn’t like Grace Murray, so even though John did, the engagement was broken.
The next time John Wesley fell in love, he didn’t tell his brother. He married Molly Vazeille in secret. It was a huge mistake. We’ll never know if he would have been happily married to Sophy Hopkey or Grace Murray, but he was definitely not happily married to Molly Vazeille. They never divorced, but they lived apart more than they lived together. Once when they were together, she dragged him across the room by his hair. Remember, he didn’t cut his hair short? That made it easier.
The journal entry that is most revealing was written the day she left him for good. “I did not leave her; I did not send her away; I will not call her back.” John Wesley learned of Molly Vazeille’s death four days after she died.
John Wesley got a lot of mail. His wife was allowed to open his mail. And he got a lot of letters from women. This made her jealous, which was one of many reasons they were so unhappy. But this is where Miss March comes into the story.
We don’t even know her first name. Wesley wrote 40 letters to this Miss March over a span of 17 years. There is nothing in the least romantic in these letters. He is coaching her in her Christian faith. She is a wealthy woman and a recurring theme in their correspondence is her attitude toward the poor. She was upper class and she knew it. She had that stereotypical British way of looking down her nose at people who were below her social class. She might give of her money, but surely she wasn’t expected to actually associate with these unfortunate people!
John Wesley told her that was exactly what God expected her to do. In one letter he told her “to converse more with the poorest of the people . . . in spite of dirt and a hundred disgusting circumstances. Do not confine your conversations to genteel and elegant people.” And in his final letter to her, written December 10, 1777, he was blunt:
I find time to visit the sick and the poor; and I must do it, if I believe the Bible . . . I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to.
The story about how John Wesley came to care so much for the poor goes back nearly 40 years. His friend George Whitefield had persuaded him to try field preaching. Preaching outside, wherever people were. This was as much a strategy as a necessity because the churches were closing their doors to him.
One of his early experiences with field preaching came in a place called Kingswood. This was mining country. The miners worked hard, earned little, and died young. When they died, their families quickly became desperately poor. As is often the case, the children suffered the most. There were no schools in Kingswood. So there was no escape from the cycle of poverty. And there were no churches. Nobody was going to build a church in a place like Kingswood. It was a scary place. It was a place to avoid.
John Wesley made it a point to go there and to preach there. Out in the open air. He stood on top of a hill called Hanham Mount and there were about 1,500 who heard him. The coal miners had faces blackened by the coal dust and as Wesley looked at them he could see white streaks where the tears were running down their cheeks.
This became a special place for John Wesley. He saw the need for a school at Kingswood and he started one. His heart went out to children living in poverty. Sometimes I am asked why this church has a partnership with Sherman Elementary and not one of the schools closer to our church. It’s because Sherman has one of the highest percentages of students who are living in poverty. So what we are doing is a very Wesleyan thing.
John Wesley first preached to these minors at Kingswood in 1739. Three years later, in 1742, he published a pamphlet called “The Character of a Methodist.” This was early in his ministry. He wanted to get down on paper what he thought was unique about Methodists. He said there is nothing unique about our doctrine. We just believe what Christians have always believed. And there is nothing unique about the way we worship. Methodists, as long as Wesley lived, worshiped in the Church of England. There was no MethodistChurch. That came later.
So what is a Methodist? A Methodist, he said in this pamphlet, is someone who loves God and loves neighbor and is serious about both. There’s inward holiness. Wesley was big on this. That personal relationship that changes your life from the inside out. But there is also social holiness. Wesley was big on this, too. Living out your faith in the world, especially in relation to the poor and the disadvantaged.
There are churches today that emphasize inward holiness but aren’t particularly interested in changing the world. Some churches even teach that this world is beyond hope and the best we can do is make sure we’re on the right side before Christ returns and raptures us all away. And there are churches today that emphasize social holiness but all this business about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t get much attention. They’re all about doing good things (and they do a lot of good things) but they aren’t particularly interested in growing their faith or sharing their faith with others.
The genius of John Wesley that never grows old is that he brought these two together. Loving God and loving your neighbor. And taking both very seriously. That’s “The Character of a Methodist”.
One way we remind ourselves of that in this church is with our purpose statement. We try to put it up everywhere so you cannot miss it. What we are all about here is knowing Christ, loving God, and serving others. Once we know Christ and surrender our lives to him as Lord, we take very seriously both inward holiness (loving God) and social holiness (serving others).
We’ve mentioned John Wesley and the poor. Poverty was a huge problem when Wesley lived. It’s still a huge problem today and followers of Jesus don’t run away from it. When Bill and Gwen Gibson, our United Methodist missionaries serving in Senegal met with us recently, they showed us this slide:
As it says in James, telling poor people to have a nice day and be filled with God’s blessings and leaving them hungry is not the Christian thing to do.
We haven’t mentioned John Wesley and racism. Racism was a huge problem when Wesley lived. It’s still a huge problem today and followers of Jesus do not run away from it. It’s been in the news, you may have noticed. Color of skin still gets in the way of loving others as we love ourselves.
In Wesley’s day the problem was more basic. Slavery was legal. British slave traders were getting rich. The economy of at least four of the thirteen colonies in the newly independent United States of America was based on slavery. The common consensus was that it was perfectly all right to buy and to sell and to abuse people as long as they had dark skin. John Wesley was ahead of many Christians in saying that God does not approve.
He’d seen slavery up close in Georgia. He detested it for the rest of his life. He wrote a pamphlet called “Thoughts on Slavery” that was widely distributed. When he was 85 he preached an anti-slavery sermon in Bristol, a port city where the trading of slaves was big money. A fist fight broke out in the congregation while he was preaching. The last letter he wrote was to a man he had led to the Lord, William Wilberforce:
O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish before it.
Sixteen years later, through the efforts of William Wilberforce, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Fifty-six years after that, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And of course, big as that was, that was just one step. The struggle against racism continues to our day.
John Wesley looked back over his life as an old man, and there were some regrets. He expressed many of these regrets in that sermon about “The Inefficacy of Christianity”. He taught us to love God and to love neighbor and to be serious about both. A less serious man would not have had as many regrets.
But there can be no mistake. John Wesley died a happy man. He knew he had done what God put him on this earth to do. We saw a couple of weeks ago that he had nothing left over with his money. He gave it all away. He also had nothing left over with his life. He was completely spent for God.
He never retired. He was preaching two or three times a week as he approached his 88th birthday. He was, by the way, something of a health nut and often would attribute his long life to the way to took care of himself. Three days before he died, he preached his last sermon. He came home and said he didn’t feel well. He never got out of bed.
This is the painting of him as he was dying. The woman to his
left, our right is Elizabeth Ritchie, his housekeeper. She wrote down a detailed account of his death.
John Wesley believed in dying a good death. He believed how you died was a witness to those who you left behind. So he may have rehearsed this in his mind long before this moment on his death bed.
Elizabeth Ritchie records his words when he barely had strength to speak: “Best of all, God is with us.” He said that twice. You might hear that these were his last words. They were not. He somehow managed to get this prayer out: “We thank you, O Lord, for these and all thy mercies. Bless the Church and King. Grant us truth and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord, forever and ever. Amen.”
Then he tried to sing. Music was always important to the Methodists. He tried to sing, “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath”, but all he could get out was, “I’ll praise my . . . ” Then his strength ran out. He tried again. “I’ll praise my . . . ” Finally, he looked at his friends and he said, “Farewell.”
I want to die a good death. It’s kind of a morbid thought I suppose, but I want to die praising God and knowing that I’ve lived my life to God’s glory.
But before I die, before you die, there’s some living to do. So I leave you with John Wesley’s question: Are you awake? Or are you asleep? Do you think Christianity is really just about believing in God and trying not to be as bad as someone else? Or do you realize it’s about a God whose love will not let you go, who has claimed you and knows you by name, whose Son died on the cross for you, who by his Holy Spirit restores you and remakes you into the image of God, and who sends you out to be instruments of his healing in a broken world? Do you understand this? Are you awake?
Love God and love neighbor. If you are serious about being a Christian, you will be serious about both.
Dear God, you who sent revival to England and to America long ago, send revival to us today. It’s not something we can do or cause or create. It’s your work, not ours. But God, we’ve learned from your servant John Wesley that there are some things we can do and need to do to make us more receptive to your grace. There are many things we can do and need to do in our hearts as we seek to love you more. Don’t let us stop there. Because, God, there are also many things we can do and need to do with our hands as we seek to love our neighbor. Including that neighbor we’d rather love at arm’s distance, if at all. In this sacred moment, dear God, we promise that we will do our part even as we trust that you will do yours. In Jesus’ name, Amen.